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Finding Your Inner Medical Student

We need to be reminded why we went into medicine and how fortunate we are to be doctors
By Sameer Vohra, MD, JD

Last month, I attended a lecture on the current landscape of the health care marketplace. Sitting in the back of a crowded classroom, I listened to a director of a high-powered health care consulting firm open his talk by asking the audience to associate one word with doctors. The audience, mostly business, policy, and social service personnel, started with the words smart and rich. Then, someone yelled out unhappy. Murmurs followed with two other individuals also stating, “Yes, very unhappy.” The speaker moved on, but as I listened to him discuss the many recent health care mergers and acquisitions in Chicago, I could not stop thinking about that introductory exchange. Was the secret out? Does everyone know that doctors are unhappy?

A week later, I found myself addressing medical students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I was invited to speak about advocacy during residency and provide the students with a model of patient and community engagement. The students in attendance were so engaged. They asked wonderful questions, participated enthusiastically in discussions, and were eager to implement the lessons I had conveyed. Everyone in the room could feel the excitement. These medical students were so passionate about becoming doctors and about the impact they were going to make on people’s lives. Despite the long hours and strenuous study, these students were profoundly happy.

I left that room so energized. I was excited to see my patients and continue to make a difference. But, I could not shake that lecture from last month. Was I as enthusiastic about medicine as a medical student? I think I was. If so, what happened? How did it happen so quickly? Would my current excitement wear off the moment I entered the hospital? I was very afraid it would.

The truth is many physicians are unhappy and dissatisfied with their career today. We have all heard a colleague say, “If I had to do it all over again, I would not be a doctor,” or similarly, “I will never let my children become physicians.” Even if you do not agree, most physicians completely understand. Our profession has challenges, and many just don’t want to be doctors anymore.

The Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2014 shows that only 58% of physicians would choose medicine as a career if they could do it all over again. Only 47% would choose the same specialty, and a miniscule 26% would choose the same practice setting. Even the most satisfied specialty, dermatology, had an overall satisfaction percentage of only 65%. The data is clear, and the secret is definitely out. Physicians are not satisfied with their profession.

This general feeling of discontent is as prevalent in young physicians as it is in our older colleagues. Our friends of similar age and intellect have high-powered positions with status or income that we may not share. Instead, we enter a bureaucracy where we have limited control and ownership over our lives. This arrangement combined with decreasing salary, long hours, and disgruntled patients leave us feeling lost. The hope and optimism that filled us as medical students have been overwhelmed by challenges and constraints.

A Special Profession

But there is hope. In the weeks following my lecture, I have become increasingly satisfied with my job. The challenges remain, but I rediscovered why I wanted to be a doctor in the first place. Just like those enthusiastic medical students, I wanted to make a positive impact on people’s lives. I wanted to make my patients healthy so they could live their lives to the fullest. I cannot say for certain that this excitement will continue in the weeks or months to come. However, I am going to hold on to my inner medical student, and will continually remind myself how lucky I am to be a doctor.

I think all of us, regardless of our years of experience, need these interactions with medical students. We need to be reminded why we went into medicine in the first place and how fortunate we are to be doctors. Our time, education, and struggle allow us the unique privilege of healing the sick. Medical students understand this concept profoundly, which is why they are so excited. They want to be us. We should want the same thing. When we do, others will continue to realize how special our profession really is.

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